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Citizens battle Sumner to save city-owned Ryan House

Oct 18, 2023, 11:59 AM | Updated: 12:31 pm

sumner ryan house...

A fence was recently installed around the Ryan House in Sumner and a demolition notice was posted; citizens are battling the City of Sumner to save the city-owned historic structure. (Courtesy Melody Adams-Forsström)

(Courtesy Melody Adams-Forsström)

As KIRO Newsradio reported last month, news of a plan by the City of Sumner to tear down the historic Ryan House in downtown Sumner has raised the ire of some residents there. In the latest developments, a citizens’ group has formed and has now taken legal action to stop the demolition. The Ryan House was the hot topic at the Sumner City Council meeting this past Monday night.

The meeting was the first gathering of the body since they voted on Sept. 18 to demolish the Victorian home listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Ryan House wasn’t on the agenda, but community members who wanted to save it spoke out during the public comment.

“I’d like to talk to you about unfinished business that should be in front of the council,” said Randy Adams, one of the first people to speak. “The City of Sumner was named in a petition filed with the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board last Monday. Since you did not hear any of this on your Unfinished (Business) agenda, I wanted to ensure that all of you knew about that fact and that the citizens of Sumner knew about it.”

The Ryan House is on Main Street in downtown Sumner in north Pierce County, just off SR 167. It was built between the 1860s and 1880s by the Ryan family, early settlers in Sumner, before being improved and expanded. The Ryan family donated it to the city in the 1920s, and it served as the town library for five decades. In the past few years, the City of Sumner has raised about $1 million as part of some very public plans to restore the Ryan House and bring it up to modern codes, making it ADA accessible, perhaps to serve as an event venue or other public gathering spot.

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Crews working on the house recently vacated by the Sumner Historical Society apparently discovered some structural issues in May. City officials appear to have not really spread the word about that discovery, and the increased renovation costs, and then the City Council voted on Sept. 18 to give up on the restoration project entirely and demolish the house instead.

Since that vote, many Sumner residents and others who live nearby and who care about history have been experiencing a bit of whiplash – after having heard glowing reports the past few years about the fundraising success, and because the Ryan House is the centerpiece of the City of Sumner’s comprehensive plan.

The city’s comprehensive plan figures in the legal battle now underway despite what appears to be signs that demolition may be imminent.

Commenters on a Sumner history Facebook page have mentioned possible demolition dates in early November, and in the past few days, a fence has gone up around the house, and an official demolition notice has also been posted.

Meanwhile, in and around Sumner – virtually and in real life – the past few weeks have seen a flurry of activity spurred on by the demolition vote.

The citizen’s group, called “Save Ryan House,” was formed by a number of the Sumner people, including several who spoke with KIRO Newsradio at a City of Sumner “open house” event on Sept. 26. They have a Facebook page, and are collecting tax-deductible donations through the Sumner Historical Society.

At last Friday night’s annual Sumner High School homecoming parade downtown, the route of which goes right past the Ryan House, “Save Ryan House” volunteers waved signs and handed out flyers.

On Monday, Randy Adams, who mentioned the petition in his public comment, also outlined several issues with how the Ryan House project has been managed and offered up some fairly pointed criticism of the city’s handling of the process.

However, Adams did end his remarks on a conciliatory note.

“I can go on and on,” Adams said. “What I’d like to do is just, hopefully, you guys listen somewhat to what I said, and that we can see that, although our maybe our process had been flawed previously, and disclosures that you thought you had given us had not been done, that maybe we can restart correctly and see if we can all come together and save the Ryan House.”

It appears that the way the city turned on a dime – shifting from renovation to destruction with little or no warning and no meaningful public engagement – is what has a lot of people in Sumner and the wider historic preservation community scratching their heads.

“I stand before you as a concerned citizen, but also as a voice for the community that feels unheard and [un]consulted and is very concerned by the lack of transparency, due diligence and vision that has accompanied this decision,” said Lindsay Norlin, a Sumner resident. “And first and foremost, the lack of transparency surrounding the fate of the Ryan House is very troubling.”

“Our historical landmarks should be cherished,” Norlin continued. “Not every town has a historical landmark, so the fact that we have one is pretty special. And the fact that we are so quick to tear it down seems just very concerning.”

There was also anger expressed about the overall condition of the Ryan House, and that the city somehow should have earlier uncovered the reported problems with the structure that they now say doom the restoration effort.

“From my understanding, the city has been responsible to keep up this house for almost 100 years,” said a man named Spencer Gray. “And it’s failed miserably.”

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A commenter named Amie Rang put the Ryan House in the same category of beloved public parks, and tried to express how preserving the home would amount to a civic investment for the greater good.

“My kids are grown,” Rang said. “I can’t tell you the last time I went to Loyalty Park, but Loyalty Park’s still important to me, I still am glad to have my tax dollars go to that. I want it to be there for future generations.”

“I feel the same way about the other parks and the Ryan House,” Rang continued. “It is really important as a community that we preserve our history, that we honor our history, and that we make an investment in making sure that our history will be there for future generations.”

There was no verbal acknowledgement from Mayor Kathy Hayden or other city council members of any of the public comments, and no mention was made of the Ryan House during the rest of the meeting that followed.

KIRO Newsradio spoke with Randy Adams not long after the meeting ended. Adams further explained the legal effort, and said the citizens’ group has hired an attorney to take steps to legally force a delay in the city’s demolition plans.

David Bricklin is the group’s attorney and was reached at his office late Tuesday.

Bricklin told KIRO Newsradio he filed a petition last week with the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board. The petitions asks for formal review of the Sumner City Council’s vote to demolish, seeking that review based on the group’s belief that the decision is contrary to the city’s comprehensive plan.

A copy of the filing shared by Randy Adams questions whether demolishing the Ryan House is consistent “with the City of Sumner Comprehensive Plan, specifically, in the Historic and Cultural Resources Sub-Element, Goals, Policies, and Objectives (GPO) 1 (‘preserve … the historic … cultural resources of Sumner’), GPO 1.3.1 (‘continue to support the Sumner Historical Society by providing the use of the Ryan House’), and GPO 3.3 (‘converting to a visitor’s center’).”

Bricklin says the review being sought could take as long as six months. In the meantime, there’s no formal order to stop the demolition, Bricklin said. But, he says he spoke with Sumner’s city attorney, and describes the city’s willingness to abide by the process and the delay for review as more of a “handshake” agreement than a legal order. In addition, the demolition process is slightly odd, Bricklin says, in that the entity that would grant the demolition permit and the entity that owns the building are one in the same: the City of Sumner.

For the city’s official perspective on the Ryan House and to the public reaction to demolition plans, KIRO Newsradio reached out to a Sumner spokesperson early Tuesday morning with a request to interview Mayor Kathy Hayden.

After some back and forth via email, the spokesperson declined the interview request on behalf of Mayor Hayden because she was too busy and because “as a part-time mayor, she does not have traditional business hours.” A request to interview members of the Sumner City Council was also turned down for the same reasons. The spokesperson said they’d only take questions in writing; a list of questions was sent by email Tuesday afternoon. As of 9 a.m. Wednesday, KIRO Newsradio has yet to hear back.

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Randy Adams was glad to have the opportunity to speak, but it’s clear that he’s glad the legal effort is underway, too.

“I thought it was great for the first time that people actually be able to have the opportunity to stand up and voice their opposition to the decision of the city,” Adams said. “But at the end of the day, the city was just killing time. That’s all they’re doing.”

“They have to listen to us and we have three minutes at every meeting,” Adams continued. “So we can just keep coming back and giving them our three minutes forever on this very topic, because that’s what it’s gonna take.”

When it comes to the future of the Ryan House, Adams believes the Sumner City Council is playing a waiting game, and hoping his group will eventually lose interest.

“Because they just think it’s gonna blow over,” Adams said. “And,” said Adams, now speaking from what he portrays as a dismissive opinion of the citizen effort from the perspective of the city council, “‘We don’t care, what a bunch of bumpkins.'”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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